Airline employee wins sex discrimination case after flexible working request refused


Managers wouldn’t negotiate her hours because of “detrimental effect on the business”; case could force all airlines to review how they allocate shifts, say legal experts

An airline employee whose requests for flexible hours were rejected when she returned from maternity leave has won a sex discrimination case against her employers.

Emma Seville, who worked for Flybe airline as cabin crew for 13 years, worked full time on a flexible rota – meaning she could work any 22 days in a month – before going on maternity leave. But after having her son, she asked to return to work on a fixed, pre-arranged rota of 11 days a month.

Seville had difficulties finding nurseries for her child because of the unusual working hours, the Birmingham employment tribunal heard, and so proposed flexible working or job sharing. Both requests were rejected by Flybe, and Seville appealed the decision internally before taking her case to a tribunal. She complained the present arrangements placed female cabin crew members at a disadvantage compared to their male colleagues.

Seville said: “They point-blank refused. They told me that a significant part of the workforce was already on fixed hours and they couldn’t get any more people in that pot because it would have a detrimental effect on the business.

“You would be waiting for the rotas, anxiously holding your breath to see what you would be getting. I felt let down. I felt I had given 13 years’ service. My individual situation and my loyalty were not taken into consideration,” she added.

Flybe said Seville’s request for flexible hours had been fully considered, but that it could cause problems. The company also added that it had a fixed rota system in place and shifts could be swapped.

Seville won her legal claim for sex discrimination, but lost the claim for flexible working hours. Tribunal judge Lynne Findlay said cabin-crew work was dominated by women mainly of child-bearing age, and added: “This placed women at a disadvantage compared with men.”

Legal experts regard this hearing as a “significant” test case that could lead to flexible working schemes being adopted by female cabin-crew staff at other airlines in future.

Angie Crush, partner at Thomas Mansfield Solicitors, said it will force all airlines to review their rotas and the way they allocate hours to ensure that they do not breach discrimination laws. All airlines will need to follow the principles laid down in this case or face claims against them.

“It could easily have a knock-on effect on other industries. If an airline company, trying to schedule flights around the world with the logistics that involves is now expected to consider the impact this may have on women, it is difficult to see how any other industry could argue that it would not be reasonable for them to do the same,” she added.

Matthew Potter, partner at Birketts law firm, said: “All employers should be alert to the need to take into account individual childcare responsibilities when seeking to impose a requirement on employees to work a particular shift pattern and carefully consider whether requests such as the one in this case can be accommodated, however inconvenient it may be for the business.”

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